It’s not a diet. It’s a lifestyle change.

1978c0d281900969fa8c953c786ec1e6You’ve probably gathered by now that I don’t recommend dieting for long term weight control or health promotion. In fact, a lot of people are hopping on this “don’t diet” bandwagon, even popular diet companies. The word diet is becoming increasingly more synonymous with unhealthy. Mind you, the dieting industry isn’t suffering one bit – still managing to rake in over $61-billion yearly (up from 40-billion just a few years ago). But diets just aren’t very hot sellers, these days – no, diets are so last decade. You want to know what’s really raking in money? Lifestyle changes. You see, the very nature of a diet is short term: you go on a diet, you go off a diet. But lifestyle changes are forever as long as you possibly can.

If I had a nickel for every time someone has said to me, “It’s not a diet it’s a lifestyle change” I’d be one wealthy mama. But is there really a difference between dieting and lifestyle changes? Many popular diet companies would gladly have us believe there is. Just the phrase lifestyle change imbues a sense of lasting results; the very thing diets have proven not to have. So let’s take a moment and parse out the differences.

Diet is a term to describe a set of values, beliefs, and behaviors. The answer to our question (diet vs lifestyle change) can be found by looking at the motivation behind the behaviors. Take a look at the diagram below. At one end of the spectrum we have a fear-based mentality, and at the other we have a joy-based mentality. Most of our food and exercise behaviors can be plotted somewhere on this spectrum. (Okay, laugh with me about the Donnie Darko irony of this spectrum. Love or Fear!)


Notice that we are not arguing/comparing dieting behaviors here. A person that runs for exercise and eats salads could be at either ends of the spectrum. Depending on the reasons behind our actions, running and eating a salad can be fine and healthy, or quite disordered.

I {ran 5 miles even though it hurts my knees} because I don’t like my body.
I {ran because it was sunny outside and I love running} because I love my body.

I {ate a salad when I really wanted a burger} because I don’t like my body.
I {ate a salad because I was craving a salad} because I love my body.

When Eating is Fear Based

When we are dieting, all food thoughts and actions go through the “dieting filter”. Food is valued on its ability to help us lose weight, or not. Foods perceived as causing weight gain are bad and often we judge ourselves as bad for eating them. The fear may not always pertain to weight gain, and instead could be a fear of loss of control, increased disease risk, a feeling of unholiness, uncleanliness or impurity, as is often experienced in types of eating disorders. Fear-based eating/exercise is associated with words like dangerous, tempting, “getting off track”, sinfulness, obligation, self-punishment. Food is a threat to good intentions, health, purity, physique, or weight loss. Uncontrolled and undisciplined eating [becomes] associated with moral downfall, weakness, and shame.”[*] Eating may become contingent on whether or not you exercised… (I exercised, therefore I can eat…. or I ate, therefore I must exercise).

Rigid eating involves extrinsic rules like: time, calorie amounts, off-limits foods, “safe foods” or “free foods”, a goal weight, tracking of progress via #s, weight, body measurements, and more. The very term “safe” food, implies that there are dangerous foods. Foods that might thwart your plans.

Ellen Granberg found that dieters within her qualitative study were motivated by a desire for self-enhancement and frequently identified weight loss with the pursuit of another ‘possible self’. Oftentimes, dieters identify weight loss as leading to self-transformation – to an ability to do things they couldn’t previously do: go to the Bahamas and snorkel, feel more confident dating, fit into a wedding dress, or wear smaller clothes. Weight loss becomes the key to a better future, and food becomes the sabotage. When fear, guilt, shame, or “should/n’ts” govern our eating habits – mindful or intuitive eating becomes nearly impossible. When food thoughts and actions go through the dieting filter, we lose touch with our innate sense of hunger, satisfaction & satiation.

When Eating is Joy Based

A person that lives by the philosophy that all foods fit, can tune into his/her body’s cravings and energy needs. When food is not attached to points, morality, shoulds & shouldn’ts, it is allowed to be what it truly is: pleasure, fulfillment, and nourishment both mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. “Eating is flexible and varies in response to hunger and fullness” – from Ellyn Satters famous quote on normal eating. In short, a joy-based eater eats whatever they want, whenever they want it (seeing as it’s available, affordable, etc). The food consumed has minimal/no bearing on one’s morality, body image, or self worth.

Eating is not contingent on extrinsic rules:  whether or not you exercised, the time of day, calories, your weight, grams of fat, grams of carbs, etc.  Joy based eating involves intrinsic rules: what food do I want? how hungry am I? how much do I need to eat to feel full? what would taste good? what would satisfy me? what would nourish my body? and how would I feel after eating this food?

When Exercise is Joy Based

Take a moment and think about all the activities you did as a kid. What did you like to do?  (Red Rover, Kick the Can, Tag, Monkey Bars, Dancing, Swings, Bike Riding, Soccer, Baseball…)

Why did you do those activities? (To be with friends, to be outside, because it was fun!!! Because you were good at it.)

Joy-based movement looks much the same way! What do you love to do? and Why? …simple as that. Joy based exercise is life giving, social, fun, empowering and it’s good for your body. Joy-based movement actually reduces stress. It encourages self love and self care, and nurturing your body. Joy-based exercise doesn’t take into account calories you might burn, unless you’re trying to plan for refueling (say, on a long bike ride).

Joy based movement is flexible – you can miss a week, a month, a year or more and rely on your body to work it out.

Consider: If you moved your body solely because it was enjoyable, would it change the type/location/duration/amount of exercise you do?

When Exercise is Fear Based

Fear based exercise is exactly the opposite of joy-based movement, and based on the same principles of fear-based eating.

  • “If I don’t exercise I’ll get fat.”
  • “Running hurts my knees, but I should be a runner. All my friends do 5k’s and they have great bodies. Maybe if I train for a 5k I’ll look like that too.”
  • “I was bad this weekend, I ate so much food and sweets. I need to spend an extra hour at the gym today.”
  • “I’ve had a terrible cold for month, and I should probably rest.. But I can’t miss a workout.”
  • “I hate the gym, and I really hate the stairclimber. It’s the worst hour of my whole day, but I have to go burn off those calories.”

Fear based exercise looks like:

  • Exercising even though you are sick, injured, or under your optimal weight
  • Doing activities that you dislike because of the promise of burning lots of calories
  • Rigid scheduling – it makes you anxious to think about missing a day or two.
  • The amount you eat is dependent on whether or not / how much you exercised.

You can take this quiz to determine if exercise addiction is something you might struggle with.

Putting It All Together

What’s the difference between a diet and a lifestyle change? If the motivations behind them are the same (fear, rigidity, and body shame) then the answer is Nada.

Can the same exercises and eating habits be joy based for some people, while being completely fear based for others? Of course!

Can you be a mindful, intuitive eater while still wanting to lose weight? Maybe – but it’d be very hard. Anytime we are using the ‘dieting filter’ to govern our food choices, feelings of deprivation, stress, guilt/shame disrupt our inner intuitive-eater. That’s my opinion.

Can one practice body-acceptance while still trying/wanting to lose weight? Maybe – but it’d be very hard … see {this} brilliant blog post in the HAES files for a great discussion. It seems to me, we should join with Qoheleth in saying…

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God. Ecclesiastes 2:24


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